Wall Street ends flat as "fiscal cliff" focus lingers

NEW YORK Sat Dec 1, 2012 3:52am IST

1 of 5. Traders work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, November 27, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Brendan McDermid (UNITED STATES - Tags: BUSINESS)

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NEW YORK (Reuters) - The S&P 500 wrapped up its fifth positive month in the last six on Friday, although it ended the day flat as politicians remain at odds about how to avoid the so-called fiscal cliff.

Trading has been choppy in the last two weeks as investors react to statements from policymakers on the state of discussions on how to avert a series of tax hikes and spending cuts that could pull the economy back into recession.

The S&P 500 was up 0.29 percent in November even as it suffered a slide of more than 6 percent from the month's high to its low.

"Given the 'on again, off again' fiscal cliff (negotiations), it's rather surprising how resilient this market has been," said David Rolfe, chief investment officer at St. Louis-based Wedgewood Partners.

"Between now and the end of the year, there's going to be an information vacuum outside the fiscal cliff, and I believe that resiliency will be tested."

In contrast to the apparent calm in equities, the CBOE Volatility Index .VIX, a gauge of market anxiety, jumped 5.4 percent, its largest daily gain in two weeks.

The VIX also rose for the week, but posted a whopping 14.7 percent decline for November.

On Friday, President Barack Obama accused a "handful of Republicans" in the U.S. House of Representatives of holding up legislation to extend tax cuts for middle-class Americans in order to try to preserve them for the wealthy.

Speaking shortly after the president, House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, said: "There is a stalemate; let's not kid ourselves."

Despite the divisive language, many market participants are betting that a deal will be struck - if only at the eleventh hour.

Corporations continue to react to what is expected to be a harsher tax regime next year. Whole Foods Market (WFM.O) was the latest to announce a special cash dividend - of $2.00 per share in this case - ahead of expected higher tax rates in 2013.

The Dow Jones industrial average .DJI rose 3.76 points, or 0.03 percent, to 13,025.58 at the close. The S&P 500 .SPX gained a mere 0.23 of a point, or 0.02 percent, to finish at 1,416.18. But the Nasdaq Composite Index .IXIC dipped 1.79 points, or 0.06 percent, to end at 3,010.24.

For the month of November, the S&P 500 rose 0.29 percent, its smallest monthly variation since March 2011. The Dow fell 0.5 percent and the Nasdaq gained 1.1 percent.

For the week, though, all three major U.S. stock indexes advanced, with the Dow up 0.1 percent, the S&P 500 up 0.5 percent and the Nasdaq up 1.5 percent.

VeriSign (VRSN.O) shares dropped 13.2 percent to $34.15 after the company said the U.S. Department of Commerce approved its agreement with ICANN to run the .com internet registry, but VeriSign won't be able to raise prices as it did before.

Yum Brands (YUM.N) slid 9.9 percent to $67.08 a day after the parent of the KFC, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut chains said it expects a drop in fourth-quarter sales at established restaurants in China.

After a close relationship for several years, Facebook (FB.O) and Zynga (ZNGA.O) revised terms of a partnership agreement, according to regulatory filings on Thursday. Under the new pact, Zynga, creator of the "Farmville" game, will have limited ability to promote its site on Facebook.

Zynga's stock fell 6.1 percent to $2.46. Facebook's stock gained 2.5 percent to $28.

Apple Inc's (AAPL.O) latest iPhone received final clearance from Chinese regulators, paving the way for a December debut in a highly competitive market where the lack of a new model had severely eroded its share of product sales. Apple's stock fell 0.7 percent to $585.28.

The markets' reaction to data on Friday was muted.

U.S. consumer spending fell in October for the first time in five months and income growth stalled, leading some economists to cut already weak estimates of fourth-quarter economic growth.

Slightly more than 7 billion shares changed hands on the New York Stock Exchange, the Nasdaq and NYSE MKT, more than the daily average so far this year of about 6.48 billion shares and the largest in two weeks.

On the NYSE, roughly six issues rose for every five that fell, while on Nasdaq, the ratio was nearly 1 to 1.

(Reporting by Rodrigo Campos; Editing by Jan Paschal)

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